This story is part ofCNET’s deep dive into how we quantify health.
Thanks to smartwatches likeand fitness trackers like it’s easier than ever to keep track yourself at home. With just a quick glance at your wrist, you can track your pulse, heart rate and the number of steps you’ve taken in a day. But there’s one important health metric that many people still don’t track: heart rate variability. This metric, also called HRV, can provide insight into your overall health, stress, fitness levels, and more.
Your HRV is the time between your heart beats. And while that may not sound deep, it’s actually an important indicator if you know how to find it. Unlikeor heart rate, is a bit harder to measure because not all wearables offer it.
One of the few wearables that measures HRV, the Whoop tracker uses it and a few other metrics to help you know if you’ve recovered well enough from your last workout to train again. These detailed metrics are one of the reasons professional athletes and endurance trainers are big fans of the product. I’d actually never heard of HRV until I checked out the Whoop group on the company’s site.
Like any other indicator thatlet me tell you, HRV is useless unless you understand what it means and know how to use it to improve your health and fitness. Keep reading to learn more about what HRV is, how to measure it, and how it can help you optimize your health.
What is Heart Rate Variability?
“HRV is the time between each heartbeat, which is controlled by the autonomic nervous system,” Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer, told CNET. The autonomic nervous system is basically your body’s stress regulator or nervous system and contains two key parts: parasympathetic and sympathetic.
The nervous system is so important because it regulates involuntary systems in your body such as heart rate, digestion, and blood pressure, among other things. You can think of the sympathetic nervous system response as your stress response or what kicks you into fight or flight mode. The parasympathetic nervous system response is also called the “rest and digest” state and is important for allowing your body to digest food as well as lowering your heart rate and blood pressure.
You probably know that reducing stress is important for health, but what does this have to do with fitness? A lot.
Fromis such an important part of your overall fitness routine, HRV is one of the most useful metrics that tells you if your body is recovered (i.e. not in a stressed or sympathetic state) so you can train again.
For example, maybe you’ve been working out a lot and not sleeping much, but you always stick to your 6 a.m. workout no matter what. You can technically feel good, but you risk overtraining if you push yourself too hard (especially without enough sleep). While using ait’s definitely useful for measuring how well you’ve slept, HRV is another way to see how well you’ve actually recovered from a previous workout or even just a stressful situation or a night out.
How to measure and use HRV
To measure HRV, you need some type of heart rate monitor that can accurately measure patterns in heart rate. Some of the most popular devices that include HRV tracking are the Whoop and the.
Since HRV is a little tricky to measure accurately, it’s helpful to use a device that also tracks your sleep, resting heart rate, and maximum heart rate so you get a bigger picture of your health.
For example, Whoop tracks your HRV, heart rate, exercise and sleep and uses an algorithm to offer recovery or workout suggestions. If your HRV is good (higher values are better), then you are in the optimal state to exercise or adapt to any kind of stress.
A good HRV is a sign that your nervous system can adapt well to different situations, which is good when it comes to coping with stress and overall balanced health. Average HRV varies by age, but it also varies by individual—it’s best to track your own patterns and note any changes over time, rather than comparing yourself to others.
Why HRV Matters for Fitness and Overall Health
“If your HRV is high, it may be an indicator that you’re leading a healthier lifestyle and have been following healthy habits like getting a good night’s sleep, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, eating healthy and reducing stress,” Roser said.
Since your HRV pattern is a reflection of how much stress your body is under, virtually all aspects of your lifestyle can affect it. Remember that stress is more than just mental – things like illness, emotional difficulties, lack of sleep and dehydration are examples of things that stress your body.
Everyone faces some amount of stress (and some types of stress, like exercise, can be helpful), but it’s important to understand how well your body is handling it. If not, you may risk overtraining or straining your body when it might be best to take a break. And that can quickly lead to feeling burnt out, sick, or just plain exhausted.
“When things are perfect, your stroke-to-stroke time has a lot of variability. If your interval between heartbeats is the same, you have not yet recovered. This suggests that you may be overtraining or simply not yet recovered and need either a lighter exercise day for recovery or a rest day to achieve more optimal form,” said Debra Atkinson, MS , CSCS.
Who can benefit from HRV tracking?
Although HRV is more popular in the world of professional sports and endurance training, it can be useful for anyone to monitor. Even if you don’t play a lot of sports or train professionally, HRV can help you get a better idea of your body’s stress level, as well as your recovery and fitness levels. If you’re the type prone to burnout or overtraining, tracking HRV can be a useful tool to make sure you’re keeping rest days and recovery a priority.
“For people who tend to push and work hard to achieve better results, HRV monitoring can provide concrete evidence of a much-needed break. If you’re unlikely to rest on your own, but find that you’re often injured or ill, HRV can provide the evidence you need to step back and recover enough so that your fitness, immune system and overall of stress to be more optimal,” Atkinson said.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.